Everyone in Salvador has a band. A conversation about the humidity with any given shop clerk, construction worker, or businessman almost always ends with, "well, my band is playing tonight." It becomes a ritual every night to pile the flyers and show dates handed to you during the course of the day onto your nightstand for future review. Whether it is the surfer you just met gliding across the waves on the Farol da Barra beach, or the woman who offered you a place to stay in her middle-class digs, all Salvadorans share one important threadthe energetic fervor of Brazilian music runs through their veins.
Bahia, a large northeastern state of Brazil, has a long history of musical creativity and evolution. The most famous outbreak was in the Sixties when musicians like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil invented Tropicália and MPB (Popular Brazilian Music). More recently, superstars such as Daniela Mercury, Chiclete com Banana, and Asa de Águia celebrate their Bahian roots through the extremely popular Brazilian genre of axé (life-force). All of these artists, among many more, have shaped the worldwide impression of Brazilian music. The majority of all internationally acclaimed artists continue to hail from dear Bahia. Salvador, Bahia's capital, is undeniably the heart of the Northeastern and Brazilian song.
A new musical revolution is on the rise. While walking any street in Salvador, at any given time of day, you are guaranteed to feel the presence of two forcesforró and reggae. Forró is a traditional type of music hailing from the Northeastern sertão, or interior. The style is a mixture of European, African and indigenous rhythms heavily dependent on the accordion and percussive instruments.
Reggae, of course, was popularized by Jamaican artists, and has been long embraced by the highly Afro-Brazilian population in Bahia. Now the Bahians are infusing the classic themes with a unique style and poetry unique to their own culture. These two genres are very different in their history and style, but are synonymous in depicting the flavor of modern Bahia.
The origins of forró are debatable. The most familiar story, and indeed the version offered to me by many, involves the English of all people. As the tale goes, a group of English settlers in Pernambuco (another Northeastern state) provided a tavern that hosted dances welcome to everyone in the area regardless of class or gender. They called the designated dances, "For All", which was adopted by the Portuguese speakers as forró (pronounced fo-HO with a soft O-sound). This was the tale told my most forró musicians of the Twentieth Century. The other explanation was offered by a cultural historian named Luís da Câmara Cascudo. Cascudo suspects that the term comes from an African word, forrobodó, which would mean party, or high jinks.
Regardless of the origin, the spread of forró undeniably occurred in the 1940s when legendary Luiz Gonzaga, the son of an accordionist in Pernambuco, moved to the South and recorded the songs so beloved in the Northeast. The lyrics of most traditional forró recordings have a distinct theme of struggle, drought, pains of the heart, as well as praise for the vida sertaneja, or life in the interior. This poetry depicting the tougher life is put to lively, celebratory music to which its listener is defenseless. It is a happy, dancing music, danced in pairs and especially played during the Festas Juninas (June festivals). The purpose of forró is not unlike that of the blues in the United States, when the plaintive lyrics are worked out by the infectious beats of the music.
Today forró is making its way into Brazilian pop culture. Radio stations all over the country are alternating pop-rock and samba tunes with the exciting and clever tunes of the progressively better looking forró bands and trios. Fan clubs are filled to the max for popular musicians such as Falamansa, Chama Chuva, and Colher de Pau. Most of these bands hail from Bahia and other Northeastern states where the music is most certainly on fire.
On a rainy night at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA)'s Biological Grounds, my friends and I were at student-organized rock "battle of the bands", which would be better described as pure disaster. We lost almost all of our immediate entourage, and found ourselves under the leaky roof of a broken-down shed. The shed was most likely used as a greenhouse by day, and a storage facility for mud, hay, and randy students by night. It was time to get off the campus.
The three of us hailed the only cab in sight after wandering around a lonely road in the middle of the dark, damp night. We asked him to drop us off at the Praça de Santana, an ex-pat favorite hangout. Everything at the Praça was rained out, and we were out of ideas. The cab driver insisted we not call it quits, and brought us to his favorite spot, Mercado de Peixes. We soon learned that this dingy collection of bars and cafés, covered by large umbrellas, was the very best place to gauge local musical trendsnot to mention drink cachaça (very hard liquor) till the sun came up. In short, the Mercado was the new favorite.
Salvadorans drive up to the nightspot, ignore the questionable smell of fish and sewage, grab a table, and crank their sound systems for all to hear. Whichever table you are at, you are guaranteed the unmistakable and inescapable dings and twangs of purely joyous forró. The first stand off the street even hires a singer and keyboardist with a drum machine to perform their latest renditions of Gilberto Gil's "Esperando Na Janela" (Waiting at the Window), and even the forró version of "I Will Survive". The better listening was from the parking lot's blaring trunks down the way.
Mercado de Peixes is most certainly not the only place to hear forró. In fact, it is extremely difficult to find a place or time in Salvador where you cannot hear it. It is merely the perfect spot to experience the unadulterated spirit of the sertão, of Bahia, and of bucolic Brazil right in the middle of a city. These days, what is found in Salvador is what the rest of the country, North, South, urban or rural, cherishes on the soundwaves. Forró is now almost as popular as when Luiz Gonzaga introduced it all those decades ago.
Perhaps it is a quest for what is true, tangible, and significant in young Brazilian identity. To remember the past, use it, and add to it with modern ideas is one of the most emotional ties a person can have to his land. In such an increasingly urban society, a connection to the music to call your own is in itself a connection to the people you share it with.
Reggae hit it big in the 1960s, and Brazil was no exception. Musicians of the generation heard and adored Bob Marley and Peter Toshbut mostly Bob Marley. Gilberto Gil himself just recently released the album, Kaya N'Gan Daya, one of his long-awaited projects to cover Bob Marley songs. In short, reggae is not brand new. Bahian reggae, however, is just making a name for itself, and the cobblestone streets of Salvador echo endlessly of the relaxed pulses and simple melodies.
The obsession with Bob Marley dies hard all over the world. In Salvador, however, obsession takes on a whole new level. The many shops of the Pelourinho (the historical district) are bedecked in the Rasta colors, with posters, caricatures, quotes and blaring sound systems devoted solely to the Prophet himself. Bahian men and women sport their dreads as if they were the ones who made it famous, and not an hour passes by without hearing "No Woman No Cry" in rushing traffic or on the tape deck of your local café.
The Praça do Reggae is the place to be if you're an Afro-Brazilian, and anyone else with great taste in music, for that matter. You walk through the door of a white stucco façade, and find yourself in an open-roofed pit crammed with reggae-lovers dancing and groping their hearts out. The walls along the side are filled with giant Bob Marley faces, and the only drink sold is a mixture of cognac and honey from a little stand impossible to reach unless you make many new friends.
The entire night is clouded with sweat, smoke, and, of course, Marley tunes. The tracks sprinkled between Bob's hits are even more intriguing, however. They are Brazilian, in Portuguese, and truly different. These new tunes are a breath of fresh (or smoky?) air. Bob Marley's kingship in Salvador leaves you starving for someone local, someone different, and someone new. The melodies infusing Salvador reassure you that reggae, in fact, does not end with Bob.
Indeed it does not, and neither does reggae end with Jamaica. Somewhere along the line, Edson Gomes and his fellow musicians from Cachoeira (a small, touristy town in Bahia) agreed that there was something new to be done with this hypnotic and powerful music. Edson Gomes and his band, Cão de Raça, are very much considered the pioneers of Bahian reggae. The tunes are sung in Portuguese, with a little more emphasis on brass, and with lyrics reflecting the trials and joys of modern, Northeastern life.
Edson Gomes' honest lyrics and sincere timbre are what fills the air refreshingly between Marley riffs. When the car goes by with its tape deck blaring, you realize that there is something deeper in the Bahian obsession with reggaethey are making it their own. Edson Gomes is certainly the most famous and recognizable reggae musician to Brazilians of all generations. He sports his famous braided halo in Rasta hues, strains his round vocals, and pulses the tunes with the skin-tight support of his band.
Just as Bob inspired Edson, however, a new generation is inspired by Cachoeira's bravery and creativity. Younger, hipper, and culturally outspoken bands like Adão Negro are on the rise, and they are bringing Bahian reggae into the limelight. Sérgio Cassiano, the lead vocalist of Adão Negro, has named his influences as equal between samba, batucada (drums like Olodum) and reggae. The new bands are fusing their Brazilian roots with their international and cultural influences into a new sound of samba-reggae, which, Sérgio has identified as simply "baiano".
Bahian reggae is unique in sound and in theory. Edson Gomes himself does not fully adopt traditional Rasta principles. He attempts to meld the concepts that built his beloved genre with his own personal beliefs, and explains that Jesus Christ and Jah, to him, are one. The next generation, true to the struggle to distinguish themselves from the predecessors, even combats the idea of any religion connected to the music. Nengo Vieira has explained that the music to him is just that, and the original ideas are secondary. The new sound stems from the innovative rhythms and melodies of reggae, and the lyrics and beliefs of the musicians remain true to Bahian life.
Salvador will forever be known as the heart of Brazilian music, and it will pump fresh life into the country as long as melody and rhythm are born. The new popularization of forró and Bahian reggae is supported and celebrated by the more established artists in the city, and more importantly, by the country as a whole. Reinvention is something Bahians do without a hitch thanks to their endless supply of inspiration, influences and gifts. Brazil trusts Bahia to embody itself musically and creatively. Salvador continues to deliver magic.
Recommended forró albums:
Luiz Gonzaga - Melhor de Luiz Gonzaga
Gilberto Gil - As Canções de Eu, Tu, Eles
Colher de Pau - Pra Mexer
Falamansa - Deixa Entrar
Chama Chuva - Forró Chama Chuva
Recommended reggae albums:
Edson Gomes - Acorde, Levante, Lute
Nengo Vieira - Somos Libertos
Adão Negro - Adão Negro
Natiruts - Natiruts
Various Artists - Reggae Brasil
Anna Chlumsky has lived in Salvador, and is an obsessed collector of Brazilian music. A graduate from the University of Chicago, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her email: firstname.lastname@example.org